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On Archway road, just opposite Highgate tube station, there is a bookshop called Ripping Yarns. It belongs to the dying breed of charmingly disheveled shops that are so quickly being replaced by sleek high-street chains and their visual merchandising policies. Ripping Yarns trades in second-hand and antiquarian books, there is focus on children’s literature, but they also have an extensive collection of poetry, political books and much else besides.There is a distinctly bohemian feel to the place, which has been a bookshop, in one form or another, since the thirties. This slightly romantic notion is confirmed when owner and actress Celia Mitchell tells me that, over the past 25 years, she has employed numerous actors, writers, artists and musicians to work at Ripping Yarns. Jen Campbell (@aeroplanegirl), writer and shop manager, has her first book, ‘Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops’, coming out in the spring and is very excited that she now has her very own ISBN. And who can blame her?
The shop is crammed with a huge variety of stock, everywhere you look something interesting catches the eye. You could easily spend a week amongst the shelves and still never quite know what you will find next. It’s that feeling of possibility which is the essential quality of a bookshop and something that can never be replicated online, however fine-tuned the “recommendation algorithms” are.
I fell in love with Ripping Yarns’ shelves of hardback antiquarian children’s books, which are hidden at the back of the shop and feel like a real treat to stumble across, each beautiful cover is a work of art and I can’t think of anything that would make a more perfect present. These are children’s books for the very nostalgic adult.I chatted to Celia and Jen about what challenges they face as a seller of second-hand books. For Ripping Yarns, the main competition was not the internet but Oxfam; an organisation whose shops have the advantage of volunteer staff and reduced rent rates. It’s a complaint I’ve heard before and, whilst I can’t quite bring myself to deride a charity, there does seem to be a feeling amongst many in the industry that Oxfam are creating the “Tesco” of second-hand bookshops. It’s a difficult conundrum when both sides are worthwhile causes. I’d be interested to understand Oxfam’s point of view as I have a feeling that it is an area of contention that will come up time and again during these visits.Ripping Yarns are in the process of putting all their incredible stock online, over 5000 books have already been listed, so if you can’t make it to Highgate you don’t have to miss out on that old childhood favourite. If you do live in London, they are well worth the short trip on the Northern Line and where ever you are, you can keep in touch with them on Twitter, Facebook or through their blog.